Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam?

After months of speculation and confusion since the first summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018 in Singapore to address, a second summit between the two leaders is likely to be held later this month. Though the White House announced that the exact place would be announced at a later date, it is likely that Da Nang in Vietnam will be the venue.

The announcement assumed credibility after Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s top nuclear envoy and said to be Kim’s right-hand man, met Trump in the Oval Office “to discuss efforts to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons”. The sticking point — that the US will continue to keep up pressure and sanctions on North Korea until it realises full and verified denuclearisation —could undo all the efforts made towards realising the goal. The delayed announcement of the summit was because of US demand for a detailed inventory of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Analysts are sceptical about the possibility of the second summit as it is felt that there is still much to be achieved through back-door diplomacy, without which nothing tangible would emerge, as was the case with the Singapore summit where only a vague agreement was announced. Behind the scenes, there seems to be a lack of understanding between the two sides. A second summit may therefore not be justified.

But Trump is upbeat that the bar will be higher this time. There is no reason to back Trump’s optimism in achieving denuclearisation as the term itself has different interpretations in the two camps. Unless some clarity and common understanding of it is arrived at beforehand, the second summit could go the Singapore way. There is no evidence to suggest that Pyongyang has taken any measurable steps towards disarmament since Singapore.

No doubt the Singapore summit was historic as it was the first encounter between two adversaries in decades. But the agreement they signed was mere rhetoric and short on details, with Kim pledging to work towards the “denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.

But instead of any tangible progress, both indulged in blame game, leaving analysts to critique that Kim made no concrete commitments and is unlikely to surrender his atomic arsenal. Washington’s insistence on keeping the sanctions on until Pyongyang relents takes the exercise back to square one.

Summit for the sake of one does not cut any ice and Trump should avoid getting into one before the two sides have a common definition of ‘denuclearisation’. But since this is unlikely, not much can be expected from the second summit even if it takes place at this point of time. Pyongyang’s statements so far reinforce the view that Kim has no intention to denuclearise. The main bottleneck for a breakthrough is this disagreement over the definition.

Clarity in understanding

On December 20, the state news agency KCNA published a commentary providing North Korea’s definition of “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” and sought to correct America’s “misguided understanding” of the phrase, stating that, in Pyongyang’s view, it would mean removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean peninsula is targeted. The commentary observed that the US needs to clearly understand this position of North Korea.

The second case that makes one sceptical of any positive outcome is premised on Kim’s New Year address, in which he emphasised that “if the US fails to carry out its promise to the world but seeks to force something upon DPRK unilaterally…and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure upon the DPRK, we might be compelled to explore a new path for defending the sovereignty of our country”.

It is not difficult to infer that Pyongyang not only wants the US to lift all economic sanctions but also withdraw its nuclear-capable forces from South Korea and the surrounding region, such as in Japan.

If the US accedes to such a demand, it would have to end its extended nuclear deterrence guarantees to South Korea to eliminate the ‘nuclear threat’ to the North, and potentially end such guarantees to Japan as well. This means Trump must agree to concede all concessions up front before Kim considers putting his nukes on the table. That is extremely unlikely to happen.

And if Trump does accept all of Kim’s conditions, he would have made a terrible deal in the eyes of the world. Can Trump justify his position, if that is the case, to the people of the US and the world? The security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific would have taken a dramatic turn, a scenario that’s difficult to imagine.

(The writer is a Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India)

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Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam?

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